Daniel José Older
I wanted to start with the idea of the origin story. Every writer has one, and it’s always interesting to hear how writers of color navigated the choppy waters of reading fantasy early on and then deciding to write it. I remember searching for myself, in that languageless sort of way we do when we’re young and don’t know the larger meaning of our search. And I remember loving fantasy with all my heart even though I wasn’t there, and then feeling a kind of betrayal when I became more conscious and realized how devastating that lack was, that erasure; it was a similar feeling to finally studying US history in depth and coming to understand the true horror of it. All those myths they raised us with have their source in such dirty water. So for me, writing fantasy became an act of reclamation. If it could be used to justify our destruction, it could also do the opposite, no? I put fantasy away for a long time and didn’t come back ’til I started reading Pullman and Rowling, who both make motions at dealing with power and its complexities even while still playing into very dominant narratives of whiteness. Then I was reminded of Octavia Butler and something like a cannon went off inside me. I read everything she wrote—an English teacher, Mrs. Middleton, had given me Blood Child when I was in the seventh grade, so it was a return home for me—and then I read Díaz and Mosley and I physically HAD to write. It wasn’t a choice.
Tobias S. Buckell
I grew up in the Caribbean and there was a very strong tradition around me of oral folk tales, tall tales, and duppy stories (ghost stories). Paul Keens-Douglas on the radio was doing stories in dialect, and he was the first person I realized was a full-time storyteller. Because the Caribbean nations were producing stories and culture centered around their experience, I had stronger models to look to in those spaces. Yet even so, I engaged with science fiction and fantasy with a great deal of naïveté as a child. The far-off places seemed exotic to a poor kid living on a boat in the islands. I didn’t twig to the single narrative I was consuming for a long time, particularly as my education in the Virgin Islands at private schools began to emphasize British and American stalwarts that reinforced the western narratives inside the SF/F I was reading. It was actually a piece of science fiction by an American that I read in high school that gave me my scales dropping from the eyes moment. I read an SF novel set in Grenada, and while it wasn’t perfect, I read it so voraciously I felt like I’d been dying of thirst in the desert. It suddenly begged the question: why didn’t the Caribbean, India, South America, or Asia show up in the books I was reading in a meaningful (non-touristy) way? There was so little work that had this missing element that I realized if I wanted more of it, I needed to work at putting it out there myself.
Ah, that hunger is so real, Tobias. That’s exactly it. I wonder then about the moment when we go from readers to writers. I had always known writing was in me, stories came very naturally. But I drifted in and out of knowing what that meant long-term/career-wise. I don’t think writing seemed like a real thing that someone could do in their life until I read Stephen King’s On Writing that same magical year when I read Butler and Díaz. It’s such a practical, straight to the point manual—I don’t think I’d ever read anyone being so real about the writing life before. Other books get very airy and pretentious about it all. This was flesh and blood. Even just reading his process around word counts and the simple truth that if you keep putting down words, eventually you’ll have a finished manuscript, and then you have to figure out how to make it good. I was also blogging out the weird adventures I had as a paramedic on NYC ambulances, and it was so simple: I would just come home and write out what happened the night before, took twenty minutes and came out cool. I thought, look—If I just make something up, throw some ghosts or monsters in there, it’ll be fiction. And just like that a huge wall collapsed—the idea that I had to write THE GREAT NOVEL, SOMETHING PROFOUND AND HEARTWRENCHING, which was really holding me back as it turned out, and my motto became, “Just tell the fucking story.” Which has very much kept me going over these years of being a writer.
I trace so much of my origins as a thinking, writing, speaking person to my childhood in Lebanon. Some of my earliest memories are of being out of place: born in Canada, feeling the Arabic I was growing up with ceding place to English and French; moving to Lebanon when I was six, already half-formed in language, my mother being told that I speak Arabic “like a foreigner” and struggling to find a school in which I could speak my whole self; then back to Canada, my French now too posh for Quebec, my signifiers askew, and learning all of a sudden the several ways in which I was Other.
I could look at that history and shape any number of stories from it: say that the self I cobbled together was fragmentary, and that’s why I’m drawn to stories told in pieces; say that growing up multilingual made me want to know all the names for all the things, and that poetry, mythography, folk, and fairy tales offered an achievable path to that; say that being colonized by at least two languages with warring, debatable borders made me want to build bridges between them. But origin stories are always myths, and myths are always teaching tools that can be worn down by their purpose until they’re smooth, round stones.
For me, I went from being a reader to a writer when I was seven and wrote a poem to the moon full of the Thees and Thous I’d absorbed from a children’s digest of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. My parents told me that my grandfather—a revolutionary who’d spent years imprisoned for his politics—had been a poet, and that I had his footsteps to follow in if that was what I wanted. I did, with all the fierceness of a child utterly convinced she already understands the world completely. Since then, poetry and fantasy have been my languages more than English, French, or Arabic, and small wonder: if (to slightly mangle T.S. Eliot) poetry can force, or dislocate if necessary, language into its meaning, then fantasy does the same for reality: forces, or dislocates if necessary, reality into its truth.
I’m glad to be taking part in a project where we can do the same, in turn, to Fantasy itself—break new truths out of old ground.
Oh, this, so very much this. I look white to most people, and I lived among a sort of ex-pat community on boats up and down the Caribbean. But most of my family and friends were often Caribbean on the islands. Where did I belong? My mother was white, my father black. As a toddler I still remember putting a pick in my hair and then crying when it wouldn’t stay in my hair like my dad, it would just sadly slide out and fall to the floor. I was so frustrated. I bounced from group to group but always felt other.
When I moved to the US, I felt even more at a loss.
It’s wild to read these, because so much of the grounding for my imaginary work also comes from that sense of neither here-nor-thereness, being mixed, at home in many worlds and somehow none, an inbetweener. For a while, of course, I thought I was all alone in that, then, as Baldwin says, I picked up a book. But the emotional experience of otherness and inbetweenness isn’t so well dealt with in fantasy lit; at least it wasn’t when I was coming up, so while books provided a certain solace on one hand, it really took meeting and talking to other folks to find out that all these things I was feeling weren’t my burden to bear alone. So writing became a way of filling that void, answering that persistent call, the endless questions—both in myself and in fantasy.
My favorite thing to hear about my own work from folks is that it feels like home. I think that’s the deepest of honors, to be able to reach that place in someone else that’s true and indescribably safe, even if it’s amidst scary stories about monsters and haints. That deeper safety, the kind that means we are recognized, seen.
What we’re witnessing now is a kind of literary renaissance of the imagination. All these glorious counternarratives keep rising up from the rusted exoskeletons of failed hierarchies. And they are responses, yes, but also something brand new. New languages, new rhythms, new structures.
What a time to be alive; what a time to be a writer.